Presidents of the United States of America: Presidents of the United States of America
First off, I would like to apologize, this 20th anniversary review is approximately five days late, which was the re-release of the album anyway, but I’ve got my whole list of monthly write ups and mistook the major label release date as the original release date. My apologies, I hope you can forgive me for such a fundamental error. Right, on with the show.
This album absolutely provided a bridge for me between awkward junior high me, listening to comedy and novelty songs on a Sunday night radio station (I’m looking at you Weird Al, Kip Adotta and Bananas at Large) and awkward high school me, listening to alternative radio, but still enjoying quirky songs. Without this album, I have no idea how long it would have taken for me to discover the MC5.
The Presidents, or PUSA, or PotUSA, were one of the last gasps for new music from the “Seattle Scene”. Their schtick was twofold; one, they basically wrote children’s music for adults, and two, between their electric guitar and bass, they had five strings between them. They sang songs about being annoyed by a cat, succulent peaches, and the missed connection singles section at the back of a free Seattle magazine.
The album starts off with the all out guitar assault introduction that is “Kitty” before the first lyrics of the album, namely “meow, meow/meow, meow, meow meow” kicks in. When the song takes over in full force, it’s a straightforward tale of a cat that’s been outside all night, comes in for a brief moment, and then asks to be let outside. The owner doesn’t immediately want the cat to go back out, and the cat turns on the owner to scratch them through their jeans. The ending of the song states emphatically “fuck you kitty/you’re gonna spend the night OUTSIDE”.
Track three, “Lump”, was the number one most requested song of 1995 on Seattle radio station KNDD. It tells a tale of a woman whom the narrator of the song continually thinks about that seems to limp their way through life faster than he can keep up. The song and the story are both very catchy and get stuck in your head for long stretches of time. That seems to be at least part of the appeal of PUSA, their songs are simple, repetitive, and catchy, especially on this, their debut album.
Track four, “Stranger” was my first introduction to the band. The song is titled after a free newspaper from Seattle. The Stranger itself makes enough money through advertising and classified ads, most controversially for professional “escorts”, that it is able to maintain its status as free. Dan Savage, author of Savage Love, still publishes in The Stranger and lives in Seattle, though now he is a nationally known syndicated columnist. Anyway, back to PUSA. One section of the classified ads is a section called “I Saw U”, which is all about trying to track down missed connections. The Presidents used the concept behind these sometimes awkward and unintentionally hilarious snippets to form the lyrics of the song. The first example in the lyrics is “You: Lynyrd Skynyrd hat/me: little kiddie/sat across with a velvet jacket/wild orange hair and dark, dark eyes/I gawked like a 12 year old smitten/Carla the stripper/straight from LA/you seemed cool for a naked chick in a booth/let’s be pals some day/in other words, put some clothes on and call me”. What can I say, kids music for adults. Simple straightforward, easy to understand lines that get stuck in your head and never leave.
Perhaps their most famous track, “Peaches” received loads of frequent MTV airplay after this band received national attention. Lyrically, the song is about the singer’s love of peaches and how he would love to have millions for free. I have a sneaking suspicion that he’s not talking about the fruit, but maybe a euphemism for something else. What I am uncertain about is whether he’s referring to southern belles specifically or lady parts in general. I’m almost positive that the lead singer has never let his true inspiration be known on this matter. But it doesn’t matter, because you’re drawn in anyway.
Two of my favorite tracks on the album are back-to-back and barely over three minutes in total. The first, “We Are Not Going To Make It” seemed like a rallying cry for my friend and me at the time because we were just learning to play instruments and didn’t have the skills to make catchy music. With lyrics such as “we don’t have the talent/and we don’t have the time/we don’t have the patience/and we don’t know hot to rhyme”, the song seemed tailor made for struggling bands to take on and make their own. The second track of this duo was “Kick Out the Jams”, which is almost diametrically opposite from the message of the previous song. Sample lyric, “I’ve been elected to rock your asses till midnight”. Little did I know at the time, but this song, which isn’t a straight cover, but changes the lyrics quite a bit, would be my introduction to the great proto-punk band the MC5, who rankled radio stations with their debut album, Kick out the Jams. Thank you, PotUSA, for placing me down that road toward the discovery of such a pivotal band in the evolution of punk rock.
Skipping ahead a few tracks, the final song on the album, “Naked and Famous”, was the source of endless debate among my friends, mostly because nobody could decide whether the lines was “thirty foot smirks” or “thirty foot Smurfs”. Now, neither is beyond the stretches of the imagination for such a band to write, but I’ve always favored the former to the latter, mostly because it goes with the rest of my interpretation of the song. In using a play on words, rather nakedly laid bare, everybody wants to be famous. The song is about many acquaintances and their brushes and struggles with fame.
The Presidents of the United States of America remain intermittently active today, and have turned Presidents Day weekend (it IS their weekend after all) into PUSAfest. They have held forth for several years at the Crocodile Cafe over that three day weekend, frequently playing three shows with no repeated tracks. In 2014, before the Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl victory, they released the track “Blitz”, which received major radio play in the Seattle area. Chris Ballew, has made a name for himeself as Caspar Babypants, a children’s song performer, which isn’t to terribly far off from his PUSA gig. In 1998, the band got together with Seattle rap icon Sir Mix-a-Lot to form the short-lived supergroup Subset, who released only one official track, but played a handful of shows.